Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor


667421B5-924F-4182-94A9-07CB4F318AE1Sunny, an American girl, finds herself transported to Nigeria when her family decides to move back to their home there. Being American is the least of Sunny’s challenges. Sunny is albino, which means she can’t go out in the sun without an umbrella to protect her skin. Sunny also experiences odd visions which thoroughly frighten her. She becomes friends with a boy in her class who then introduces her to another girl, who puzzles Sunny with her secretive behavior. Eventually, Sunny is revealed as a powerful witch, and she goes on to explore her heritage and powers.

This book was described by multiple sources as a “new Harry Potter” which is what made me request an advanced copy from Netgalley. The premise is similar – a young outcast discovers she has magical powers and must use those powers to defeat a powerful enemy. That’s about the only similarity to HP, and I think it is a mistake to compare these two richly imagined stories because they really are nothing alike.

Akata Witch introduces a whole new world of magic, raw and powerful, and a new cast of characters who (Hallellujah!) are young Africans, two of whom are girls! The language and culture of the story and the characters provided a palate cleansing freshness, and an intriguing, clever plot. There is nothing here not to love and I predict kids will devour this book. Highly recommended.

 

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert


Do you believe in fairytales? If you answered yes, do you think you could survive in a fairytale world? Alice Crewe knows nothing about the world of fairytales, called The Hinterland here, until her famous grandmother dies. Althea Proserpine wrote a mysterious, rare book of completely original tales after disappearing in the European woods for several years. All Alice knows about Althea is that she and her mother, Ella, have been running from her for years. But now she’s dead and everything changes. Ella disappears, Alice is being followed, and weird things are happening wherever Alice goes. She becomes focused on finding Ella, and the trail eventually leads her to Althea’s mysterious compound deep in the forests of upstate New York. There Alice discovers the true story behind her birth, her relationship with her mother, and her role in the Hinterland.

Everyone knows there is a dark side to fairytales, and Melissa Albert freely explores that darkness in a fresh and inventive manner in this debut novel. Albert has been writing for teens and an online audience for a long time, and that experience has resulted in a richly plotted, beautifully written, imaginative reboot of the fairytale world. What if the stories are real? What happens when the order of things is disrupted? What happens when the stories change? Alice definitely shakes things up when she gets into The Hinterland. She’s the clod in the churn, the pebble in the shoe, and she is most definitely *not* the “Alice” as written into the story ‘Alice-Three-Times.” At one point, when she is acting all contrary to the story, she says

“I did it because a girl doing nothing in a fairytale ends up dead or worse, but a girl who makes a decision usually gets a reward.”

Seems like a sensible choice to me!

Albert explores many themes here: people who use stories to escape from their real lives, people who manipulate others to affect the outcome of a story, people who challenge the status quo for love, people who *can* and *do* change. Alice and Ella are both flawed characters, but you end up loving them in spite of their flaws simply because they love each other so fiercely. The Hazel Wood is a little bit Beautiful Creatures meets The Matrix and is dead-on entertaining. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: January 30, 2018
Published by Flatiron Books
Thanks to NetGalley for the advanced copy.

Concentration Camps of Canada by Baron Alexander Deschauer


CampsIn the 19th century, the government of Canada, like the United States, began a systematic assault on Indigenous People. Land was confiscated. Rules and laws were established that controlled where and when Indigenous People could live, work, and travel. Perhaps the most insidious, disgusting action was the establishment of compulsory schools for Indigenous children, who were removed from their families, starved, abused, and indoctrinated into Christianity and the white way of life.

Concentration Camps of Canada attempts to tell the story of one man who lived through the school system, became a war hero, but still lost his family and everything dear to him. I say “attempts” because this is less of a story and more a collection of vignettes stitched together in a rough story form. We first meet the boy, Migizi, as he arrives at school, completely unprepared for what he will encounter. Several chapters recount his experiences with being beaten by the nuns and priests who ran the school, enduring barely edible food, spartan living conditions, constant exposure to sickness and death, and sexual abuse culminating in the suicide of his one close friend.

The first four chapters focus on Migizi’s life at the school, then suddenly in chapter 5, Migizi is a young man working on a farm, attracted to the farmer’s daughter and ultimately beaten and told to leave her alone. Then he is a drunken husband with three children in the next chapter, then he’s working in a tannery, then he’s in the Army and a brave hero, then he’s remarried, then he’s losing his children…you get the idea. There are no transitions here, no resolutions. The writing is capable enough, and there are parts where it really sings, but there is no cohesive story here, often resulting in wooden dialog and awkward moments. For example, the description of Migizi repairing communication wires in the middle of a field in World War II is presented as dialog between Migizi and a fellow soldier, but it sounds stilted and unnatural, as though the soldier were reading a news story.

I believe the author’s intent to shine a light on the compulsory schools and treatment of Indigenous People in Canada is well-intentioned. However, the mashing up of several true stories has resulted in a muddy, disjointed narrative. There is no authentic storytelling here. It’s a bit like a Kennedy writing The Underground Railroad – the good intent is there, but the authenticity is lacking. The horror of what happened to Migizi comes through, but in a clinical “news story” kind of way.

The author claims that Hitler’s concentration camps were inspired by the compulsory schools; some quick research does not fully support that. It is widely believed that Hitler admired the reservation system used in the United States and Canada, so it’s certainly not a leap to assume he was aware of the schools and their organization. However, by titling this book “Concentration Camps of Canada,” the author attempts to make the connection, but the book itself does not support the theory. This topic is far too serious to be reduced to a sensationalized headline or title.

Despite the shortcomings, I will say that this book, more than any other I’ve read recently, has prompted me to do some research and dig deeper into this shameful piece of history. The story is simple enough that it will appeal to the YA audience, and it would make a decent supplement to a social studies segment on First Nation people, if only to ignite discussion and further research on compulsory schools and concentration camps.

 

Choices by J.E. Laufer


IMG_0137The plight of refugees is all over the news these days, so Judit Laufer’s tale of her family’s escape from Communist Hungary is particularly relevant. Laufer, an accomplished author of children’s books, has done a remarkable job of taking the bones of a story she has heard her whole life, a story she lived as a very young child, and layering on flesh to create a suspenseful, emotional story of courage and compassion.

In 1956, Laufer’s mother Kati Krausz Egett was the lever that pried her family loose from the early days of Communist rule in Hungary. Shortly after the failed Hungarian Revolution, when hundreds of thousands fled, or were imprisoned or executed, the Egett family realized their only chance for keeping themselves and their children safe was to flee the country. The decision was particularly poignant because the Egett’s were Jewish. Kati survived Hitler’s concentration camps, while her entire family, and Adolf’s sister, perished in the gas chambers. The unimaginable tension and stress of the Communist takeover happening so soon after the end of WWII is palpable in the whispered conversation between Kati and Adolf early in the book, when Kati asks “What if our parents had left when the rumors started twelve years ago?”

Laufer recounts the family’s secret journey from their home to the Austrian border, where they were met by the Red Cross. They managed to get to Vienna, where they were taken in by the Just family. Eventually, the Egett’s made their way to Canada where they built a prosperous life for themselves and their children.

I get the sense that writing this story was something of a catharsis for Judit Egett Laufer, and she has done a fine job of conveying the fear and emotion that drove her parents’ decision to leave Hungary. The fear and uncertainty were overwhelmed by the need and desire to have a better life – a free life – for their children. Laufer’s story strikes a chord today, given the numbers of refugees fleeing oppressive regimes, and it reminds us that those refugees are people first. They have hopes and dreams, and a fierce desire for a better life.

In telling her own story, Laufer has given us a poignant, powerful reminder that human kindness and compassion is always the way. I’d highly recommend this for a high school social studies class, as well as for general reading.

The Rattled Bones by S.M.Parker


IMG_0101I love a good ghost story, and this one has some pretty creepy, shivery moments. Combine those spine-tingling scenes with an interesting backstory and you’ve got a solid, satisfying read.

We meet our protagonist, Rilla Brae, as she’s still reeling from the sudden death of her father and coping with the life changes that accompany tragedy. Rilla, born and raised on the ocean helping her father fish for lobster off the coast of Maine, feels obligated to take on the family fishing grounds, which means giving up an academic scholarship to Brown University and staying in Maine. At the same time, she’s struggling with a changing relationship with her boyfriend and an absent, mentally ill mother. It’s a lot for anyone to handle, but Rilla meets the challenges head-on, with help from her Gram.

One day while out on the ocean, Rilla sees a young woman on a deserted island and hears an eerie song that calls to her. Haunted by her mother’s illness, where she claimed to hear and speak to the Water People, Rilla worries that she’s going mad. In an attempt to make her “girl” real, she explores the island where she first spotted the girl. There she meets Sam, a college student conducting an archaeological dig on the island looking for a lost community. Sam and the story of the island community help focus Rilla’s experiences as the ghost girl becomes more and more a part of Rilla’s life.

That period of time between high school and college is a time of change for most people. Rilla’s typical experiences are magnified by her father’s death, her sudden visual and auditory “hallucinations” of the girl, and a shocking revelation about an ugly period in the history of her community and family. Parker does a good job conveying the fear, excitement, guilt, and eagerness new high school graduates feel as they prepare to move on to new lives and new friends as they begin college. She successfully takes that universal story of growing up and pairs it with both a truly creepy ghost story and an interesting piece of history. Some of the ghostly parts were scary enough that I had to stop reading for a bit, especially after the scene where the ghost shows up in Rilla’s bed. The historical side to this story piqued my interest and prompted me to research the early island communities of the eastern seaboard. Fascinating stuff!

All in all, a satisfying story. Take this along on your summer vacation. You’ll thank me.

Helen by Anita Mishook


IMG_1299A dream turned inside out. That was California.” Helen Rice, the protagonist in Anita Mishook’s masterful debut novel, Helen, certainly finds truth in this statement. We first meet Helen as she travels from New York to California to join her older sister and her family in lovely Glendale, California. The sisters, Polish Jews orphaned jointly by the Great War and influenza, survived great hardship and made it to New York, where Sarah labored to ensure Helen acquired the best education possible. Now an adult, Helen finds herself drifting and decides to join Sarah, her husband Harry, and their two children in the land of golden opportunity.

However, Helen soon learns that sunny California has a dark and dirty underbelly which includes gangers, corrupt cops, and Nazis. Helen, passing as a “Good German Girl,” becomes the darling of a dangerous group of Nazi supporters known as the Silver Shirts. At the same time, Helen’s friend from New York, a spy for the Anti Defamation League, arrives and immediately enlists Helen as a spy. Helen, by default, begins to live a dangerous double life, culminating in foiling a Nazi plot and triggering a new life as a double agent.

Mishook, a psychologist, developed Helen’s story out of research into her own family history. She uncovered evidence of the emergence of an American Nazi Party in California in the 1930s as she researched her mother-in-law’s immigration from Poland to California, and spun that family history into a readable, informative novel. There are wonderful and disturbing nuggets of historical information here about the motion picture industry and American Nazis, much of which I never knew. Mishook’s writing is smooth and conversational, and she handles dialog well, especially given this is her first novel. The character development is skillful, resulting in some very well-drawn personas. Helen, for example, walks a fine line between irritating, charming, shallow, and badass. She’s a rather vain, unformed young woman who has drifted through her life pretty much guided by her older sister. We watch her move from uncertain girl still depending on older sister Sarah to tell her what to do, to a more confident, daring young woman who has a purpose.

Other characters like Harry and Ralph are interesting, while Joe and Winona could have used a bit more development. However, these characters all fit their roles just fine and contributed what was needed to the story. If I have one quibble with this story, it’s a small one. Sometimes authors really, really like a descriptive phrase and tend to repeat it multiple times throughout a book. That happened here, with the author repeatedly describing Helen as “chewing the soft interior of her cheek/lip” during moments of uncertainty. By the end of the book, the inside of Helen’s mouth should have been a bloody pulp if she chewed her cheek so much! But, that is a minor quibble with an otherwise wonderful book. I hope Mishook continues to produce novels and am looking forward to her next one! Recommended.

Best of 2013 for Teens


The Best of 2013 for teens contains an interesting variety of recommendations from librarians all over Monroe County. Enjoy!

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher – Lauren McCormick (Rochester City Schools) – Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a strange package with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker – his classmate and crush – who committed suicide two weeks earlier.

All the Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry Four – Deena Viviani (Brighton Library) & Claire Talbot (Greece Library) – Four years ago, Judith and her best friend disappeared from their small town of Roswell Station. Two years ago, only Judith returned, permanently mutilated, reviled and ignored by those who were once her friends and family.

Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer Adrienne Furness (Henrietta Library) – As the teenage ruler of his own country, Matt must cope with clones and cartels in this riveting sequel to the modern classic House of the Scorpion, winner of the National Book Award, a Newbery Honor, and a Printz Honor.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – Lauren McCormick (Rochester City Schools) & Matt Krueger (Irondequoit Library) – Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw, The Fault in Our Stars is award-winning-author John Green’s most ambitious and heartbreaking work yet, brilliantly exploring the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love.

Reality Boy by A.S. King – Deena Viviani (Brighton Library) – In this fearless portrayal of a boy on the edge, highly acclaimed Printz Honor author A.S. King explores the desperate reality of a former child “star” struggling to break free of his anger.

The After Girls by Leah Konen – Stephanie Territo (Greece Library) – Ella, Astrid, and Sydney were planning the perfect summer after high school graduation. But when Astrid commits suicide in a lonely cabin, the other girls’ worlds are shattered. How could their best friend have done this–to herself and to them? They knew everything about Astrid. Shouldn’t they have seen this coming? Couldn’t they have saved her?

Every Day by David Levithan – Matt Krueger (Irondequoit Library) – Every day a different body. Every day a different life. Every day in love with the same girl.

Book of Broken Hearts by Sarah Ockler – Stephanie Squicciarini (Fairport Library) – When all signs point to heartbreak, can love still be a rule of the road? A poignant and romantic novel from the author of Bittersweet and Twenty Boy Summer.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – Stephanie Squicciarini (Fairport Library), Claire Talbot (Greece Library), Ashley Armstrong (Lyell Library), Stephanie Territo (Greece Library), and Patricia Uttaro (who was hoping thyis would win the Newbery Award today, but is happy with the selection of Flora & Ulysses) – Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love—and just how hard it pulled you under.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell – Deena Viviani (Brighton Library) – In Fangirl, quirky introvert, Cath, is safe within the immensely popular Simon Snow (think Harry Potter) fan-fiction blog she writes with her twin sister, but college turns her life upside down, leaving her feeling like an awkward outsider. When she writes, Cath knows exactly what her characters should say to each other, but when it comes to forging real-life friendships, much less a romance, she hasn’t a clue.

Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz – Matt Krueger (Irondequoit Library) & Patricia Uttaro – Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein – Deena Viviani (Brighton Library) – While flying an Allied fighter plane from Paris to England, American ATA pilot and amateur poet, Rose Justice, is captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbruck, the notorious women’s concentration camp. Trapped in horrific circumstances, Rose finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery and friendship of her fellow prisoners. But will that be enough to endure the fate that’s in store for her?

5th Wave by Rick Yancey – Stephanie Territo (Greece Library) – The Passage meets Ender’s Game in an epic new series from award-winning author Rick Yancey.

Poison by Bridget Zinn Adrienne Furness (Henrietta Library) – Sixteen-year-old Kyra, a highly-skilled potions master, is the only one who knows her kingdom is on the verge of destruction-which means she’s the only one who can save it. Faced with no other choice, Kyra decides to do what she does best: poison the kingdom’s future ruler, who also happens to be her former best friend. Disclaimer – all the links go to Amazon, and the annotations have been borrowed from there as well.

Cleopatra Ascending


Cleopatra Ascending by Maureen Lipinski is an entertaining look at the life of a young girl who is Cleopatra reincarnated. Rhea Spencer comes from a family of unusual women. Witches, a shaman, a muse, psychics…all the Spencer women have some sort of supernatural ability. Rhea’s claim to the ether is the fact that, on her 16th birthday, she starts to acquire the powers of Cleopatra as she absorbs the dead queen’s magic. Problem is, there’s a team of bad guys digging up Cleopatra’s tomb, looking specifically for her own personal Book of the Dead, which they intend to use to….get ready for it….take over the world!

Rhea finds herself protected by the good guys, who have pledged, father to son/mother to daughter, for centuries to take care of the Queen when she returns to this world. However, being a 16 year old girl who has a hot boyfriend (albeit one from the Dark Side), Rhea insists on trying to live as normal a life as possible, which includes having dinner with her boyfriend’s parents. The dinner turns out worse than she could have possibly imagined, and she soon finds herself on her way to Egypt, where she will begin her training to understand Cleopatra’s power and control the Book of the Dead. All of this ends in what I had anticipated being an exciting climax, with a big battle between the forces of good and evil.

This is where I was mistaken. Lipinski does an excellent job of developing the story, up until the time Rhea gets to Egypt, where it all just kind of falls apart. There is shocking betrayal, to be sure, but the final battle felt rushed, predictable, and pretty lame. I was also put off by the number of times Rhea “shrieks” or “shouts.” I can overlook that descriptive overuse, but I really wanted a more exciting ending. Even so, the author and her subjects intrigued me enough to go find her first novel and read more about the Spencer family. One redeeming factor is the awesome cover art, which is rich and lovely, and will certainly attract readers.

Unspoken


Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan (Lynburn Legacy #1)

The description of this story intrigued me enough that I overcame my initial revulsion at yet another supernatural romance series and decided to give it a try.

Good choice.

Brennan is a fresh voice in supernatural fiction in that she can actually write! It’s been a long time since I enjoyed quirky, sassy language in this genre. Kami Glass, our girl hero, is kick ass. She leads a typical teen life in Sorry-in-the-Vale, a sleepy English village. Typical, except for the imaginary guy in her head. Jared has been her best friend for years, but only in her imagination. She has learned to hide him from everyone in order to appear sane, so imagine her tremendous surprise when she meets him, for real.

Kami and Jared, both feeling super-exposed, fence around with each other in person, trying to find the comfortable friend each has grown to love, in their minds. To complicate matters further, Jared happens to be a Lynburn. The Lynburns are the to-the-manor-born inhabitants of the manor house in Sorry-in-the-Vale, although the family has been absent from the village for years. Suddenly, they reappear, bringing with them a whole host of supernatural issues that combine to make Kami’s typical life very atypical, very fast.

Brennan’s snappy, sassy dialog is a treat to read, and the story itself is full of wonderful imagery, imaginative plotlines, and likeable characters. In fact, I enjoyed Unspoken so much, I will be looking for the next installment in the Lynburn Legacy.

The Stein & Candle Detective Agency, Volume 1 by Michael Panush

1

I do like my short stories, and I wasn’t disappointed in this first volume of what promises to be an entertaining series from Michael Panush. These stories follow the adventures of Morton Candle and Weatherby Stein, an unlikely pair who operate a detective agency that specializes in unusual (read paranormal) cases. Each story is a short vignette involving supernatural entities ranging from zombies (a favorite) and vampires to Old Nick himself. The relationship between Stein and Candle unfolds as the stories progress, and we learn how Weatherby was rescued by Candle and his group of American GI’s just as he and his family were being executed by the Nazis. The Stein Family, we learn, has a long history of exploring and controlling supernatural forces, a skill much in demand by Hitler’s Third Reich. Although unable to save Weatherby’s parents, Candle does manage to rescue the small boy and eventually ends up as his guardian and partner in detecting.

The stories are imaginative and just long enough to please. I was often reminded alternately of William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost Finder and Hellboy but found enough originality in the stories to keep me entertained and left me looking forward to Volume 2.